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Public engagement and hard policy evidence

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week I pressed send on my dissertation, on which I'll blame my lack of posting. The topic was public engagement in Canada, and particularly, the role of economic analysis. My plan is to reduce the interesting parts of that research into a readable length, but I thought I might share six points that fell out of my conclusion.

1. Public engagement on policy, program, and service development is a thing. There's always a slate of ongoing public consultations in Canada, but the pace has picked up in the last year and the major difference is that there are far more that are intended for a broad public audience, rather than niche stakeholder groups. There are pros and cons to this.

2. As a general rule, government consultations are designed to understand what citizens value, but in a qualitative, rather than quantitative, way. That is, public input is viewed as a source of ideas and general feedback, not as empirically rigourous data. As currently practiced, public engagement is better suited for generating general insights, achieving social licence for policies, and avoiding major pitfalls than it is for systematically adding to the evidence base for policy options.

3. Each public engagement activity is important. Each represents an experience through which citizens' trust in government, and their willingness to participate in future engagement, can rise or fall. Public perception of the value of these engagements is crucial. The major variables here are the extent to which public input can theoretically influence policy, and the extent to which governments can prove that input was meaningfully considered. 

4. While it can be appropriate for governments to seek public input for general ideas and feedback, there's a massive downside. The greater the extent to which public input can be considered hard evidence, the easier it is for governments to incorporate that input in policy decisions, and the easier it is for governments to demonstrate how it influenced policy. There are many goals to engagement, including education, consensus-building, and legitimacy, but insofar as better policy is a central goal, engagement should be designed to produce data.

5. Public engagement is complex. There are hundreds of studied formats, each requiring a set of detailed design decisions, to align governments' needs with citizen satisfaction while producing the required data and insights. However, the way public engagement is governed, most of these design decisions are lost. If I may be blunt, it's essentially like a first-time homeowner overruling an architect on how their plumbing and electrical will work.

6. Governments need to build capacity for public engagement, particularly digital, but as per the above they may already have more capacity than they realize. So they must also develop governance that prioritizes expertise and good practices over ad hoc goals. The strongest version of this would be governance that includes public input and oversight on how engagement is designed and evaluated.